The Deepest Cuts State Budgets in Crisis

Environmental Protections Take Hit in Fiscal Crunch

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 26, 2009

One in a series of reports exploring the impact of budget cuts being contemplated by elected officials in Maryland and Virginia.

The state of Virginia has eliminated more than one-fifth of its air-pollution inspectors -- who police everything from massive power plants to neighborhood dry cleaners -- as part of its attempt to make up a budget shortfall estimated at $3 billion or more, officials said.

Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) wants to cut about $12 million this fiscal year from the $420 million budget of the state secretary of natural resources, who oversees state parks, Chesapeake Bay restoration and anti-pollution efforts.

Under Kaine's plan, some of the cutbacks would come through deferring maintenance, eliminating training and replacing quarterly surveys of state-park visitors with annual ones. Kaine also proposed cutting 43 positions.

One small section of the secretary's domain -- the air-enforcement division of the Department of Environmental Quality -- has already made serious cuts. A spokesman for the department said 14 of the roughly 54 inspector positions had been eliminated.

No inspectors were laid off, department spokesman Bill Hayden said. He said most had left the department through voluntary early retirement programs and a handful were moved to other jobs.

Air inspectors oversee about 5,000 sites statewide, checking their paperwork and the emissions from smokestacks and exhaust. At power plants, those emissions can include soot and the building blocks of smog. At dry cleaners, they can include cleaning chemicals that irritate lungs.

State officials said the inspectors will still be able to check Virginia's largest air polluters, about 500 power plants and factories, as often as U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rules require. That's once every two years for the very largest, and once every five years for the rest.

But officials said that the rest of the sites would be checked much less often.

Jerome Brooks, who oversees the air compliance division, said that in previous years, inspectors were able to check 1,400 sites a year.

This year, he said, they will check fewer than 800.

He said they would try to target sites with a history of violations and those that draw complaints from neighbors.

"If [polluters] are out of compliance, we may or may not find it as quickly or easily as we once did," said L. Preston Bryant Jr., state secretary of natural resources.

S. William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, said the loss of inspectors could embolden Virginia's polluters to bend or break rules.

"This is akin to having pollution-control cops on the beat. When sources of air pollution know that their facilities are being inspected, they will . . . do a better job" of controlling emissions, Becker said.

Becker said he fears other states will also lay off inspectors this year as the national recession cuts into the tax revenue that makes up state budgets. Becker said it is too early to know how many jobs might be lost nationwide.

Two jobs were also lost from the Department of Environmental Quality office in charge of policing water polluters, Hayden said, although he said this was also done without layoffs.

In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) released his proposed budget last week and actually added money for the oversight of power plants.

The state's Chesapeake Bay 2010 Trust Fund, a new program that funnels money into efforts to stop pollution on farms and in suburban neighborhoods, did not fare as well.

The fund, which draws from a tax on fuel and car rentals, was heavily raided this fiscal year. As the state's budget tightened, $25 million was shifted into the state's general accounts. Only about $9.6 million was left.

For the next fiscal year, O'Malley proposed taking money from the trust fund again, this time about $6.5 million. The rest of the fund, projected to be about $25 million, will be spent on the Chesapeake, according to state officials.

O'Malley "has made a huge commitment to bay restoration here," said Mark Hoffman of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. "He could have very easily said, 'We'll continue to take $25 million.' "

© 2009 The Washington Post Company